Continuing the conversation we were having in this episode: The more I think about it, the more I think that “episodes” is a really good way to approach story games. Like I said, so far the approach to telling a story has been to:
- Take one single plot for a movie or television show and stretch it out over a six or eight hour game by just filling the time with lots of gameplay. You play for half an hour or so, then stop for the next nibble of story. This creates that odd, halting pacing that story games have where you spend the cutscenes waiting for the gameplay to resume and slogging through the gameplay to get to the next dribble of story. No matter how masterfully a cutscene is edited and how powerful it is, the emotion of that moment will have faded by the time you reach the next one. The game keeps draining away the emotion and interrupting the gameplay.
- Have LOTS of story, by making a very long, meandering plot. RPG’s have been doing this for years. I’m trying to fight these spiders so I can rescue this pig so I can win the approval of Farmer Ted, so he’ll give me the key to the mines, so I can look for the Orb of MacGuffen, so I can scry for the location of the secret lair of Baron Von Badass, so I can rescue princess Damsel, so I can gain the approval of the king, so he’ll let me pass through the Gate of Obstruction, so I can proceed on to the next town of difficult, unhelpful people, so I can eventually defeat the dragon that’s threatening to kill everyone who I now realize kind of have it coming.
This is one thing that I really like about the Mass Effect series. While it’s strongest in the first game, they all have a strong episodic feel to them. You arrive somewhere, you’re introduced to the local problem. You solve it, which also nudges the larger plot forward. Each place has its own building action, peak, and dénouement. This saves the plot from feeling like an aimless quagmire of side-side-side-questing. (Dragon Age was episodic as well, but there was so much combat that the introduction of a problem and its resolution were usually a few game sessions apart for me. It was episodic, but it felt empty.)
What games like Alan Wake and Walking Dead have done is formalized this episode concept. That’s good, although it brings in all these new expectations. Notice how we’re complaining about “episode length” and how Josh disliked the long train ride and puzzle-sidequest that hung on the end of this episode. Now that the game is acting like a TV show, we’re bringing along TV show expectations: We expect episodes to be about the same length. We expect individual episodes to maintain a tone, even if the tone varies between episodes. We expect rising action beats that culminate just before the episode ends. We expect new recurring characters to be introduced at the start of an episode, not in the middle or end. (Unless their appearance manufactures a fake cliffhanger.)
Some of these expectations come from the way people prefer to hear and tell stories, but some of them come from our tradition of having television shows with commercial breaks and fixed timeslots. It will be interesting to see what game designers do with episodic content [insert Half-Life 2: Episode 3 joke here] over the next few years, and where they break from or adhere to episodic traditions.